Forty kilometres before getting to Dawson City, the Klondike Highway intersects with a gravel road, heading off to the north-east. This is the Dempster Highway to the town of Inuvik, 734 kms north.
Construction of the road began in 1959 and was completed in 1978 – needless to say they had a few challenges along the way! It’s the only public highway in Canada that crosses the Arctic Circle and along the way the fantastic vistas of arctic tundra, mountain ranges and untouched wilderness seem to go on forever. It really is an outstanding drive and despite its remoteness, it is not a difficult drive, with a number of small settlements along the way and some well-maintained campsites.
Rain along some sections, a flat tyre on one of the cars and clowns driving inappropriate vehicles for the road, made life interesting at times, but it’s a unique and incredibly rewarding drive. The wildlife experienced consisted of a huge but distant herd of Porcupine Caribou, spread over a vast area of tundra, an arctic fox and numerous small furry things scuttling across the road to avoid our vehicles.
We split the trip into two legs, with numerous stops for photos and a forgettable break to try fishing in a river we were told was full of fish! We got eaten by marauding mosquitos for about 20 minutes before deciding there were better ways of passing the time.
The town of Inuvik with a population of 3,600 was a pleasant place to stay. One of the highlights of visiting this part of the world was experiencing the incredible friendliness of the First Nations people we met. Refueling the car or stopping at tourist information centres led to long and interesting conversations. Without exception, each person we met was talkative, welcoming and shared information about local practices and the way life is in these remote and changing locations.
Life is different when you live above the Arctic Circle on top of permafrost. All plumbing, electrical and heating has to be above ground, houses are all built above ground level, the entrances to houses are all metres off the ground and road building is a complex affair and needs substantial maintenance.
There is a new road heading further north from Inuvik to the small community of Tuktoyaktuk on the Arctic Ocean. It is 150 kms from Inuvik and the new, all weather road was completed in 2018. Tourism has come to Tuktoyaktuk, a traditional village previously only accessible by air, sea or by ice road in winter. Here we took photos of the Arctic Ocean, visited a local craft shop and enjoyed lunch of fish and chips at the only place in town which sells to locals – Grandma’s Kitchen!
This was such a privilege. We ordered coffee, then had to go to the house verandah, knock on the door and the coffee came from inside the house. We waited ages for our lunch as they were busy serving a team of marine scientists who had arrived by boat.
A long chat with Grandma’s nephew over lunch provided an insight into living in Tuk’ and the changes the greater access to the town had made. As is always the case in situations like this, the pros and cons are many – progress has its consequences. The wind here was ‘Patagonian like’ although strangely, not cold as one would expect and unusual for this time of the year, we were told. Rain was threatening as we left town, avoiding the large collection of skidoos and sleds of all varieties which seemed to be abandoned haphazardly around town and on the sides of the road heading south, back to Inuvik.
As we have headed north the days have become longer and longer to the point where its difficult to tell whether the sun has actually set at all. Twilight lasts for hours and it’s very easy to accidentally find yourself still up at 11.30, thinking it is much, much earlier. Having said that, camping is much easier when the sun never sets! There’s no stumbling around in the dark or fussing about with head torches to wash the dishes!